Saturday, February 23, 2013
What the Church Can Learn (Part II)
Below is an article, Reforming the Vatican, written by Tom Reese and published in Commonweal in April 25, 2008, describing what is necessary for Vatican Reform.
April 25, 2008
Article: Reforming the Vatican: WHAT THE CHURCH CAN LEARN FROM OTHER INSTITUTIONS
Thomas J. Reese
The contemporary papacy rules the church with powers that would be the envy of any absolute monarch: the pope holds supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority with few checks on his power. This power is especially evident in the appointment of bishops.
In the first centuries of the church, the local bishop was chosen by and from the people. Ideally, the people gathered in the cathedral, where, after praying together, they selected a holy and talented man to lead them. In practice, factions supporting opposing candidates would often clash, sometimes violently split-ting the community. The faithful did not always speak with one voice.
As time went on, the selection process evolved to include not only the people, but also the local clergy and the provincial bishops in a system of checks and balances. Pope Leo I (440–461) described the ideal by saying that no one could be a bishop unless he was elected by the clergy, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province. The clergy knew the candidates better than the populace and were less likely to resolve their disputes by recourse to violence. Still, as leader of the community, the bishop had to be acceptable to the people. The clergy, then, would present a candidate to the people, who would normally indicate their approval by cheering. If they booed, the clergy would have to try again. To become a bishop, the candidate had to be consecrated by the bishops of his province under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop. If he was unacceptable because of heresy or immorality or some other fault, the bishops could refuse to ordain him.
The problem with this democratic process was that it could be circumvented by powerful nobles and kings who had no respect for democracy. They could simply impose their desires on the church through force or threats of violence. As Fulbert of Chartres wrote in 1016, “How can one speak of election where a person is imposed by the prince, so that neither clergy nor people, let alone the bishops, can envisage any other candidates?” The appointment of bishops by kings and nobles led to the corruption of the episcopacy when royal bastards and political favorites were chosen.
Papal reformers from Gregory VII on saw their role as fighting off political influence in the selection of bishops. But it should also be remembered that nobles and kings were sometimes reformers of the church. It was the German Emperor Henry III who, in the eleventh century, deposed three “popes” to begin a long line of reform popes. And it was another German king, Emperor Sigismund, who was able to end the Great Western Schism.
All of this changed in the nineteenth century, when revolutions wiped out most of the Catholic monarchs in Europe. Rather than returning the selection of bishops to the local church, popes made it their own prerogative. Unsurprisingly, this led to the appointment of bishops who were loyal to Rome and would support its preeminence in the church.
But the appointment of bishops is not the only example of the papacy’s consolidation of power. In the early centuries of the church, regional or national councils of bishops helped define doctrine, coordinated church policy, and even provided a forum for judging bishops. The bishop of Rome acted as a court of appeal when bishops and councils disagreed. National bishops’ conferences are the true successors of these councils, but the Vatican refuses to allow them the independence to act like the councils of old. Similarly, ecumenical councils once had greater independence; according to some theologians, the councils even had the authority to impeach popes.
The centralization of power in the Vatican was often a legitimate response to the political interference of kings and nobles in the life of the local church. Popes could stand up to kings better than the local church could. But now that few kings or noblemen are in a position to meddle with the church, one could argue that such centralization is no longer necessary—and that it is in fact counterproductive.